For many, 2017 was a time of historic support for the rights of LGBTQ people. But, the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, the educational arm of the nation’s largest LGBTQ civil rights organization, says more can be done to improve equality in Arkansans.
On Wednesday, the group released its annual State Equality Index, which ranks states into four categories based on their respective laws and policies affecting LGBTQ equality. For a fourth year in a row, Arkansas has been designated as a "high priority to achieve basic equality," the classification with the fewest protections for LGBTQ people.
The group assigns scores based on a number of criteria, including laws on non-discrimination, hate crimes, and health and safety. Nationally, Human Rights Campaign says states are on the right track, with 13 states now in the highest category of equality. But, HRC President Chad Griffin, a native Arkansan, likens the country to a "ragged patchwork of state laws" where protections vary by region.
HRC Legislative Council Breanna Diaz says, like other low-rated states, she thinks Arkansas has made strides to introduce positive legislation, yet passing the bills ultimately proves difficult.
"We see a lot of low-tier category states are introducing really good LGBTQ legislation, but unfortunately a lot of it just dies in committee. It never even makes it out," Diaz said.
"That was Arkansas’s case, a lot of their good bills were really, really good, like top-tier stuff that we love to support, but a lot of it just did not make it out of committee."
In addition to a proposed "bathroom bill," one of Arkansas’s most memorable setbacks of 2017 for LGBTQ rights was the state Supreme Court’s overturning of an anti-discrimination ordinance in Fayetteville. Diaz says the state's preemption bill, which passed in 2015, is an obstacle for Arkansas cities wanting to pass non-discrimination laws.
"We do see that if cities are allowed to pass inclusive, non-discrimination ordinances, that’s generally for the community. But, because Arkansas does not allow cities to have any sort of bill that is not consistent with state-level law, a lot of members of our community are lacking even the most basic protections at the city level," Diaz said.
In addition, HRC data shows the number of so-called "bad bills" introduced in the state legislature rose to nine in 2017, while the number of "good bills" being passed has remained stagnant since 2011. While the bad bills haven’t had much success in becoming laws, Diaz says lawmakers should push for non-discrimination policy at the state level to pave the way for municipalities.
"I think the biggest thing they could do is pass a comprehensive or inclusive non-discrimination law like they introduced this past session actually. That would add sexual orientation and gender identity to non-discrimination laws in employment, housing and public accommodation," Diaz said.
Though the Arkansas General Assembly won’t convene for its regular session until next year, HRC says a total of more than 125 anti-LGBTQ laws were proposed in state legislatures across the country in the past year.